A woman on her own faces a night sleeping rough on the street. And as if this wasn’t bad enough, she suddenly realizes that her period has come. She knows that she has no sanitary towels and no money with which to pay for them. After all, any money that she does have needs to be spent on finding food and shelter.
This is the very real prospect for many of the estimated 217,268 women currently living on America’s streets. Yes, they carry the burden of knowing that when their time of the month comes around, they must survive in ways that many of us will never have to. For them, the reality of the monthly cycle is devastating.
So while many women on their periods put on some cosy pajamas, enjoy films on their couches and eat some chocolate, it is not that easy for homeless women. In fact, some cannot even get access to basic solutions.
Women and girls facing living homeless often have just one set of clothing and spend their time in public places where privacy is a nonexistent luxury. And if they even had access to tampons and towels, they would still have nowhere to go when they needed solitude.
The shocking alternatives that one homeless woman admitted to using during her cycle show the desperation. Indeed, she has turned items such as socks into makeshift tampons. Or picked up plastic bags from the street or from shops because she cannot afford to buy sanitary towels.
Some women have even admitted to stealing the products out of despair. After all, that need to feel cared for and clean can lead people to extreme lengths – but many attempts to meet that need do just the opposite.
Woman are also put into positions where they must choose between buying a pad or buying lunch. And with these basic items so everyday in many people’s lives, it can be hard to appreciate just how much comfort they bring.
Meet Kailah, a woman who is homeless. She shared with Bustle that the worst part of being homeless is being a female. This 28-year-old has spent seven years sleeping rough and said that it can be tough keeping clean during her periods. A sink in a public park or the bowl of a toilet to clean private areas is the best she can choose.
Most products given to shelters are pads, but Kailah prefers tampons. So she has learned how to craft her own tampons out of the pads, helping the pads to last longer. This trick also helps keep her more clean and comfortable.
Another woman, Victoria, told Bustle that she can barely afford to eat, let alone buy tampons. Indeed, women in her situation may not be able to justify spending $70 a year on pads or $90 a year on tampons. That is a luxury they simply cannot afford.
Inevitably, then, these circumstances leave some homeless women committing crimes or risking their health and safety. For example, toxic shock syndrome – from keeping in a tampon too long – is a real and everyday risk. Using shredded tank tops or cotton buds to wash and reuse up to four times over can also cause infection.
A third woman, Alexa, said the cheapest sanitary product is $7, more than she would spend on a meal shared with her boyfriend. But she would rather be clean than be full. So she has used paper towels or toilet paper during her periods, and others also explained that restaurant napkins can be used as a substitute in a crisis.
Kailah suggested that she has stolen medicine to get through the time or asked coffee shops for free boiling water with which to fill hot water bottles. Furthermore, many women said they kept away from shelters where there can be people taking drugs and alcohol. It seems that the women would rather risk a night in a park or a subway.
But fortunately, a New York City councilwoman is now fighting back. Yes, she wants all women to feel safe and happy during their periods. This is not a luxury, she insists, but a right. She believes, as many people would surely agree, that tampons are just as necessary as toilet paper.
Rallying the support of locals and voters, Julissa Ferreras-Copeland has campaigned to get lawmakers to rethink measures that limit tampons for some of the most vulnerable in society. Ferreras-Copeland is proud about the mission she is running; her passion drives her bid to lift the taboo from tampons.
And her hard work has already paid off; a full majority of the city council, 49-0, agreed with her. Furthermore, they ruled for the first time ever that all women in public schools, prison and homeless shelters will get free access to feminine hygiene products. No shame, no hiding, no danger, just safe and clean products.
Even Barack Obama spoke out about the state tax on tampons as a luxury item. He was quoted as saying, “I have no idea why states would tax these as luxury items.” Obama said, “I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed.”
The change in New York made two million tampons and three and a half million pads each year freely available to homeless women and girls. This should be a big help with the monthly crisis.
But the controversial tampon tax on feminine hygiene products has so far only been eliminated in 13 states. However, in 2016, 15 more states actively made a move towards discussing its elimination. This would naturally make hygiene products more affordable for women struggling to get by.
But there is always more work that can be done, as more women will undoubtedly continue to slip through the net. Indeed, some women will continue to use painful and dangerous methods, out of fear or shame.